October 12, 2007


I find it ironic that not only Americans, but citizens of developed countries all around the world, are more alienated and dissatisfied with their political leaders than at any time in the last 50 years, when politicians, in many respects, are more knowledgeable about public preferences and wants than ever before, and attempt to be more responsive than ever. I know many politicians of both parties. The vast majority of them are great people who care deeply about their constituents, but even they feel trapped in a dysfunctional political system. Why?

I would suggest that there are seven contributing causes:

  • Because of the massive growth of the size and reach of government at all levels, the stakes of bad or unpopular decisions are higher than ever, so more people feel the effects of what they perceive to be mistakes.
  • Small, militant, well-funded single-interest groups have far more impact on elected officials than a broad public that may want completely the opposite of what the single-interest group wants. That is why our tax code has many subsidies and loopholes built into it. The advocates for these subsidies care far more about them than the broad public that would oppose them. As a result, systems like education and health care, heavily controlled or regulated by the government, are riddled with concessions to special interest groups. A recent blog entry in the Ideas Primary blog discusses the influence of special interest groups over judicial elections.
  • Passing legislation is a messy business, with proponents required to give concessions to get votes from other legislators. Therefore, to get a piece of legislation passed often requires a proponent to agree to provisions that benefit a small, but powerful, group of people. This is especially true when a vote is close, or when more than a simple 50+% majority is needed. These concessions get done more easily in state legislatures for two reasons:
  • States are more liberal about allowing unrelated amendments to legislation to be offered to bills; and
  • States often allow amendments with no or very little public notice.

As a result, proposals become laws that really do not reflect the majority view because they need to be accepted to get something into law that does.

  • Politicians respond to stories that get broad and intense news media coverage. News media are more attracted to dramatic events that are almost like a form of entertainment, than they are by big, but gradual, long-term trends. As a result, politicians are more likely to act in response to a heavily-covered news event that creates a false sense of urgency than they are to a more profound and meaningful set of societal problems as demonstrated in this PBS Column published in 2006. Moreover, the more dramatic the event, the more panicked, and usually the more poorly-executed, the response.
  • We have 24×7 news media, both on TV and online, which have trouble filling their air time with content, plus millions of blogs. The result is that much more is reported and known about politicians than ever before. Additionally, the national and local news media have become much more sensationalistic over the last 30 years. A book called Glued to the Set, written in the mid-1990’s by Steve Stark, had a chapter devoted to the change between the higher journalistic standards of news programs in the early days of television, compared with today’s programming, which makes news more like entertainment. The negative and sensational stories about politicians tend to dominate coverage. Many people have said that some of our most revered presidents of the past would have fared poorly today.
  • Few politicians will take actions that are better in the long term if they produce negative short-term outcomes, especially with short election cycles. To some degree, we have demanded this by such politically popular, but sometimes misguided, requirements than annual budgets be “balanced.” Governments, like businesses, need to invest in the future, not just respond to today’s crises.
  • Politicians do not do a good job of thinking about the unintended consequences of their actions. There are many examples of unintended consequences:
  • In most cases, behavioral responses to laws and regulations are not considered thoroughly. For example, many schools outlawed students bringing cell phones to school because cell phones became distractions and also, in some schools, means of engaging in illegal conduct. However, the schools never considered the safety implications of students being unable to communicate outward during an event like Columbine to seek help. The cell phone debate is further discussed in thisTechNewsBlog post.
  • When new laws and regulations are added to existing ones, politicians and regulators do not consider the cumulative impact of trying to administer these laws and regulations with no additional resources.
  • Politicians fail to consider the culture of fear and tentativeness that having an overload of harsh, detailed, and punitive laws and regulations has on the need for governments to act efficiently. This equally applies when an “investigation” is done after something goes wrong. The unintended consequence is that necessary actions either do not get done, or take too long. A classic example of this is the fact that governments end up paying small businesses too slowly for services rendered because there is so much focus on making sure that no wrong payment ever gets made.

For all these reasons, politics produces unsatisfactory results, even though the politicians are acting in good faith, being responsive to citizens, and behaving in a “rational” way.